Israeli helicopters fired missiles in the north of the Gaza Strip overnight shortly after five rockets were fired by Palestinian militants killing an Israeli woman in a village close to the border with Gaza.
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas is holding crisis talks with armed
factions in Gaza on a mission to rescue the truce after 48 hours of bloodshed which has seen six Israelis and two Palestinians killed.
Two days after the first suicide bombing in Israel in five months, it
emerged Mr Abbas has also received stern warnings to clamp down on militant activity from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and another top US official.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has agreed to take military action after one of the rockets fired from Gaza killed a 22-year-old woman in southern Israel.
Israel Radio said defence chiefs had been told to search areas from where militants have fired rockets in the Gaza Strip and that the army would also block off key Gaza highways as part of its operations.
The Israeli decision came as Hamas militants mounted their fiercest attacks yet against Palestinian police seeking to stop their rocket fire from Gaza.
Seven Palestinians were wounded in gunbattles that have ensued for hours in the northern Gaza Strip.
The latest rocket attack was the deadliest in months against Israel
and the worst since the start of a five-month-old truce in the four
and-a-half year Palestinian uprising.
Mr Abbas has been deeply embarrassed by claims from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a faction loosely affiliated to his own ruling Fatah party, that they carried out the rocket attacks. The militant group Hamas has also claimed responsibility.
In an apparent response to the escalation of violence, Palestinian police and security forces in the Gaza Strip were placed on a state of alert due to “tension on the ground,” a Palestinian interior ministry spokesman said.
Palestinian interior minister Nasr Yussef said that the security forces and police had been “ordered to prevent by force if necessary all firing of rockets and mortars” against Israeli targets.
“We will take the most energetic measures to put an end to this firing and to find a solution,” he said following talks with Mr Abbas.
Mr Abbas has come under massive pressure from Israel, Washington and the European Union to arrest and prosecute those responsible for the suicide bombing outside a shopping mall in Netanya that killed five Israelis.
The deadly rocket-firing “illustrated once again that the Palestinian
Authority is not respecting its engagements to dismantle terrorist networks,” said Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner.
“On the contrary, the terrorist organisations have profited from this
inactivity to reinforce themselves and to launch attacks with a view to
sabotaging the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.”
He reiterated the Israeli government’s line that the it would take all necessary measures to ensure the pullout of over 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the northern West Bank, scheduled for mid-August, does not take place under fire.
In Washington acting State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Mr Abbas was given a strict message Wednesday in talks in Ramallah with Rice’s top Middle East aide, David Welch.
“The Palestinian leadership needs to take immediate actions to find those who are responsible for the recent bombing in Israel and bring them to justice,” he said.
Ms Rice, who issued a tough statement on the attack on Tuesday, followed it up a day later with a phone call to Mr Abbas from her plane as she flew back from a swing through Asia, Mr Casey said.
After Tuesday’s bombing, Israeli soldiers sealed off the Palestinian
territories and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered as “much harm as possible” against the leadership of Islamic Jihad, which claimed the suicide attack.
Radical faction Islamic Jihad said it was willing to meet Mr Abbas, but warned that any further Israeli aggression would signal the end of the truce and a return to suicide operations.